CLEVELAND — It’s off to nationals for two former Brookville Raiders state wrestling champions.
Forming half of Clarion University’s four-man contingent for the NCAA Division I Championships starting Thursday at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena are redshirt junior Brock Zacherl and redshirt freshman Taylor Ortz.
Those two join Greg Bulsak and Dustin Conti as head coach Keith Ferraro’s Golden Eagles have their biggest group heading to nationals since four made the trip in 2012.
Zacherl (27-1) is coming off his only loss of the season in the EWL finals when he was pinned by Cleveland State’s Evan Cheek. Ranked in the top 10 nationally at 141 pounds all season, Zacherl is seeded seventh and opens with Nebraska’s Chad Red (21-9) in the first round of the 33-man bracket.
It’s the third trip to nationals for Zacherl, who has taken his first loss of the year in stride. It was the first time he’d been pinned since his freshman year at CUP.
“It’s just a not so friendly reminder that this sport doesn’t owe me anything and I’m not entitled to anything,” Zacherl said. “If I want to be a national champ, I’m going to have to take it. I’m wrestling better than I ever have, my technique and health and mental attitude is all above and beyond what it needs to be. I’m ready. Getting pinned didn’t change any of that.”
The Zacherl-Red winner meets either Central Michigan’s No. 10 seed Mason Smith or Minnesota’s Thomas Thorn in the second round Thursday night. The tournament begins Thursday at noon and continues through Saturday.
Ferraro, who also downplays any lasting affect of losing in the EWL finals, says it’s a tough tournament field waiting for Zacherl.
“(The pin) actually hasn’t effected him too much,” he said. “We really haven’t talked about it since the night it happened. He’s wrestling better than I’ve ever seen him wrestle. He’s headed into a snake pit… It’s the deepest weight at the NCAA tournament, but he is so ready. He’s excited, focused, and he knows he’s prepared.”
Zacherl has gone 1-2 the last two years at nationals and he takes a 77-9 career record to Cleveland.
“I’ve seen a maturity in Brock’s approach this year that he hasn’t had in the past,” Ferraro said. “He’s had matches this season where he went down by a couple of takedowns and still won. He stayed composed and chipped away for a full seven minutes. It’s something he hadn’t done well early in his career and now he’s proven that he has the composure to win when it gets really tough. I’m excited to see him do it in Cleveland.”
Ortz was excited to hear he made the national tournament, after finishing second at 149 pounds at the EWLs in a weight class with just one automatic berth. Last Tuesday, he found out.
“I got a text from Coach (Nick) DeLoia and drove straight to the wrestling room,” Ortz said. “It was a really fun moment for all of the coaches and myself and we were all pumped up.”
Ortz (26-10) finished the season strong, which is what got him in the national bracket as a wild card.
“I was really surprised,” he said. “I knew I had a chance but the odds just didn’t seem like they were in my favor. I knew if they looked at my last couple of wins I would probably get in. But it was just so close.”
“We knew he had a shot, but we thought it would be tough because of some his results earlier in the season,” Ferraro said. “The recency of his big wins helped him for sure. He was wrestling his best at the end of the season, and that earned him a trip to Cleveland.”
He’ll open with No. 11 seed Matthew Kolodzik (24-5) of Princeton, trying to continue a run he started since around Christmas.
“I think the key to just getting so much better in the last couple months was my mentality,” Ortz said. “I just stopped caring about winning and losing and started enjoying the sport and started to love competing and practicing. Then I just starting winning more.”
Ferraro knows he recruited a motivated another former Raider.
“He’s matured a lot,” Ferraro said. “He’s learning to live a more consistent lifestyle and consistency leads to improvement. The main thing that Tate has going for him is that he wants to be great, which motivates him.”
Zacherl and Ortz practiced together in the room and Brookville and it’s continued at Clarion and it’s not a coincidence they’re going to Cleveland together.
“It was pretty much the greatest news I’ll get all year,” Zacherl laughed about finding out Ortz made the national tournament. “We’ve done everything together since we’ve been 10 years old. He deserves it. He’s on a whole new level this postseason.”
Ortz certainly gives him credit for helping him develop his own game.
“He’s such a great partner and leader to have on the team,” Ortz said. “Practicing with him, I really just learn so much. Also, he helps with the mental aspect of wrestling, which is so important.”
For sure, both are gunning for more than just national tournament berths, but the first one together is the first step.
“I know we’re all pretty excited,” Ortz said. “I can’t wait to get on the mat.”